It’s hardly news to anyone that tattooing is more popular than ever, and that diverse groups of people are choosing to adorn themselves with the visual language of tattooing. The internet is full of tattoo artists to follow, styles to bookmark, and travel dates to keep up with for clients looking for the perfect artist to execute their piece. While anyone looking to get a new tattoo can log on and search through countless pages of inspiration via apps like Instagram and Pinterest, there can be a lack of examples of tattoos on dark skin, often leaving clients of color feeling confused as to which options are available for them.
There are a number of pervasive myths floating around when it comes to tattooing darker skin, and what people see online often seems to confirm those misconceptions. If a tattoo artist who is known for their colorful work only shares images of pieces on white or light skin, Black and brown clients might find themselves thinking “I guess that type of work isn’t for me.” Tattoo TV can reinforce that messaging as well. (Think: Ink Master contestants griping about being assigned a “dark canvas.")
Tann Parker created Ink the Diaspora, a web and event platform dedicated to showcasing tattoos on dark skin, in response to this lack of representation and to share all styles of tattooing done on a variety of darker skin tones. Parker recalls an early experience getting tattooed where she was told by an artist that she would have to purposely scar an existing tattoo in order to be able to cover it. Other clients have shared that they were told their tattoos were guaranteed to form keloids, or that color tattoos would be impossible for their melanated skin. Misinformation can spread quickly and easily when perpetuated by industry “experts” who may not have all the answers — or are lacking the right experience.
On Instagram and at Ink the Diaspora's flash events, Parker highlights tattoo artists who specialize in and embrace tattooing darker skin. Below, Black tattoo artists who have been featured on Ink the Diaspora take on four common misconceptions about tattooing dark skin and break down the truth behind the rumors.
Myth: People with dark skin can’t get color tattoos.
New York-based Tattoo artist Sophie C’est La Vie, known for her vibrant color floral designs, says, “It’s very easy for people to say that you can’t tattoo colors on darker skin tones but it depends on the circumstance. Just as shades of skin vary amongst people of color, so do the results. Blanket statements like that can make people feel nervous and that it’s completely not an option for them when that isn’t necessarily the case. It takes an understanding of what colors work best and of how that particular skin tone usually responds to colors-and the professional experience behind that. The exploration of colors on darker skin tones shouldn’t be suppressed.”
Jay Baby of Classic Tattoo in San Marcos, Texas adds. “I think of skin tone as a filter. I want to see the colors that will look best with that filter or shade of skin. As far as color goes I always lean towards earth tones (for example: deep rich reds, salmons, peaches, pinks, olive greens.) They look so good on darker skin. I want dark-skinned people to know it’s possible and anyone who really knows how to tattoo can do it!”
If you're still unsure of what a color might look like with your particular skin tone, many artists offer color tests where they'll do either small dots or a simple design that gives you a chance to see how colors heal for you. Once you've seen the results, you can confidently choose to go for a larger piece using the pigments you like best.
Myth: Dark skin is more likely to keloid or scar.
Many Black clients have indeed had the experience of finding themselves ending up with tattoos that scar badly. "I speculate that some artists are more harsh in their approach to tattooing dark skin,” says Sanyu Nicolas of Brooklyn, New York. “In my experience, it’s this overcompensation that leads to unnecessary pain and scarring. Statistically, African people across the diaspora are more susceptible to uncontrolled collagen growth after trauma to the skin. It’s important for artists to be more intentional in their approach when tattooing dark skin. The amount of pressure being applied and the depth of the needle all play a role in avoiding scarring.” Deep scarring or keloids are more likely to be a result of an incorrectly applied tattoo — one that goes too deep or overworks the skin — than due to the skin tone itself. Make sure you check out an artist's healed work, not just photos of freshly done pieces.
Myth: Detailed styles don’t work on dark skin.
Some clients find themselves being told that the darker they are, the simpler the tattoo has to be in order to be legible against their skin tone. New York-based artist Anderson Luna elaborates: “The ability to execute detailed tattoo styles is a question of design. Dark skin is as capable as any other skin tone of carrying detail. It’s most important to design to [a client’s] specific tone; to consider scale, figure/ground, balance of negative space and black, and the specificities of the body you’re working on.” Luna adds, “Dark skin is scapegoated by designers who have been indoctrinated to believe that it’s unsuitable for great tattoos. They simply aren’t willing to put in the time and effort to educate themselves or deal with people outside their narrowly circumscribed social circles.” In other words, when looking for an artist who can execute a detailed design, look for other examples of their work on darker skin, and pay attention to the overall effect of the tattoo against the body — not just the design itself.
Myth: Tattooing dark skin requires going deeper with the needles and working the skin over and over.
The opposite is true, in fact. According to Debbi Snax of Saints and Sinners in Atlanta, Georgia, “One of the main things to take into consideration when working with darker or more pigmented skin is that it is delicate and can be overworked easily. Our skin does not require a higher voltage or deeper application for the tattoo to be visible or ‘bold’.” Artist Doreen Garner agrees, elaborating on the greater consequences of this misconception. “Going deeper without cause, repeatedly, and in the same area can cause unnecessary trauma to your client both physically and emotionally. This type of myth in tattooing uses the same mechanisms as scientific racism in the medical industry. There is no pathology associated with Blackness and the characteristics of the Black body that would call for needles to breach the normal threshold of where a tattoo should exist within the layers of skin.”
Yes, there are differences to tattooing various skin types. A professional tattoo artist should be prepared to work with different areas of the body, mature skin that has lost elasticity, skin with birthmarks or stretch marks, or to tattoo over scars. Tattooing any and all skin tones is a necessary skill just like any of the above. The problem happens when the skill of working on darker skin is undervalued and dismissed as a niche practice. Ultimately, “all skin types are different and it is important as a professional tattooer to have the knowledge on how to tattoo everyone, whether they have melanin in their skin or not,” confirms Snax. When looking for a style and artist for your next tattoo, make sure you feel confident in their well-rounded experience.